Isn’t it wonderful, isn’t it marvelous? My wondrous activity is chopping wood and carrying water.—Zen Master Pang
Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:
As a teenager I worked at a health food store. The pay was so meager that even my employee discount didn’t count for much toward the expensive organic items in the store. I was required to ride my bike to ShopRite for groceries. My need for more money impelled me to suggest a profit-sharing policy to my boss, the store’s owner.
“With a commission I will be incented to sell the store’s products more effectively,” I reasoned. “I will educate myself about the industry and items and become a valuable asset to your business.”
He looked at me askance and handed me a blunted flat-head screwdriver. “Clean up raisins,” he said. And walked away.
Once I recovered from the shock of having my smart, forward-thinking suggestion ignored, I tried to figure out what he was talking about. After all, what good is a screwdriver for cleaning up raisins?
Not finding any scattered raisins by the bulk food bins, I timidly approached the brusque boss in his tiny back office for an explanation.
“Raisins on the floor,” he said, without looking up from his paperwork. “Scrape them up.”
Returning to the shop, I looked at the floor and discovered that there were, in fact, black spots on the floor. To be more precise, the entire expanse of floor was covered with impacted raisins, much like the chewing gum covering subway platforms. I took a deep breath, dropped to my knees, and started scraping up bits of dirty raisin crud with the screwdriver.
After about a half hour of rather manic raisin-scraping, my back ached and my fingers hurt. I was alternately cursing my boss and the sloppy customers, inventing new means of containing raisins in the bulk bins, and conspiring a way out of this heinous task. My boss walked out of his office, clearly not planning to talk to me.
“Hey, Ken,” I called. “What about a chemical rather than mechanical solution to this problem? Have you considered solvent?”
He came over and looked at the little patch of floor I had cleared of raisins. Taking the screwdriver, he knelt beside me.
“Like this,” he said, and deftly scraped up a raisin. “Don’t scratch the floor.”
Looking back at my work, I saw with some shame that I had etched little marks in the floor where the raisins had been.
The boss walked away, disappearing behind the frozen foods case.
I set back to work.
After some hours of activity the internal arguments and complaints began to settle down. I found that in order to maintain a reasonable pace of work, I needed to relax my body, bringing awareness to the muscles in my back so they didn’t tense unnecessarily. I found that in order to prevent my hand getting tired, I needed to use only the necessary force to grip the screwdriver—though the automatic tendency was to grip so tight my knuckles turned white.
I began to try to perfect the task of raisin removal. I found that if I could keep my attention focused on the tip of the screwdriver as the raisin gunk curled above it, I could remove a raisin in one graceful motion. The removal of each raisin became an almost joyful event.
At the end of the day my boss looked surprised when I handed him the screwdriver, smiling. Whether he knew it or not, I was grateful for the ordeal. Strangely, though the spots remained, he never again gave me the task of removing raisins.
The understanding gleaned from this experience has stayed with me over the years. When I am confronted with tasks that seem overly menial or tedious, I am reminded to arouse my attention and treat the event as something important. These opportunities arise every day—licking envelopes, doing dishes, changing a dirty diaper, or, more interpersonally, listening to the complaints and criticism of a disgruntled customer, friend, or relative—the list is endless. There are limitless opportunities to use life to learn. At a metalevel, it could be said that all of these small events are opportunities to “learn how to learn.”
My boss at the health food store was a small tyrant, and one to whom I am grateful. And indeed, any person or event that causes us to learn by stretching beyond our zone of comfort into a new experience is a gift. When a gift is offered, do we say, “No, I don’t want that gift; give me a better one!”? No, we accept it graciously and make of it the best use we can.